OK, I’ve listened to the entire conference now. It is long, but deserves a full hearing, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the question of the intersection between science and religion. It is definitely worth the effort.
That said, it was a pretty rocky event. There were highlights, such as Neil Tyson’s impact, talks by Caroline Porco, Mahzarin Banaji (on human irrationality), Paul Churchland (on John Rawls), Ann Druyan, Elizabeth Loftus (on how we can distort memory), Steve Nadler (on Spinoza), and Steven Weinberg, and even Loyal Rue (two-time Templeton award winner) gave an interesting talk about religion and a potential scientific replacement for it. There were several people who directly attacked the views of Dawkins and Harris who had good points to make, such as Scott Atran and some of Melvyn Konner.
The conference pretty much ended up as a heated debate between Harris and Dawkins on the one side and various religious and atheistic detractors on the other. There are a few things that should be said about this. (I will refer to Harris-and-Dawkins as “HD” because they appear to agree on all the essentials).
(1) Harris was out of his depth at this conference. He is not (yet) scientifically trained, and is not particularly philosophically trained either. This led him, when confronted, to resort to some very nasty rhetoric. I imagine that the problem really is that he is too young and inexperienced, and it is questionable whether he should really have been at this conference. His books are fine for a general audience but his views are not nuanced enough yet for a more pointed and sustained confrontation.
(2) HD’s books are more effective for an atheist or fence-sitting audience than for religious believers, as Dawkins himself admitted. Their importance is more rhetorical and sociopolitical than scientific, in that they provide backbone for atheists, arguments for them to use, and pride that their position has public defenders willing to stand up and say what’s true. They provide evidence that there is a core of active and committed secularists willing to defend secular ideals with all the necessary evidence. This is particularly important given the political realities of today. And for this they should be lauded. But however good they may be, these books are relatively thin, and should not be confused with any sort of scientific research program, or even a particularly sophisticated and complete understanding of the relevant problems and issues.
(3) I was disappointed that, in the main, HD’s talks and reactions were substantively little different from their talks to the general public on these matters. It seems to me that a forum of this sort of high-powered company should require some further work and deeper analysis. Put another way, this is not Fox Radio.
(4) Harris’s ethics is little more than a sketch, and he should be referring to more fully developed utilitarian theories rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. He hasn’t the time or background for it.
(5) There was some disagreement about what the aim should be for the scientifically inclined atheists. HD’s hopes and wishes notwithstanding, it is clear that religion is never going to be eliminated (Konner made this point well), and that likely the asymptotic limit of religious belief is somewhere around the level of the members of the Academy of Sciences—around 10-15%. But 10% isn’t zero.
(6) I was particularly disappointed with HD’s reaction to one line of constant questioning by people at the conference. That is, there was a lot of commentary (by Atran, Konner, James Woodward and others) about the thinness of the data on religion. What are the causes of religious belief? Woodward made the point that religious violence varies, and yet the content of the texts is constant, so there must be other relevant variables acting as well. What are they? Clearly they are sociopolitical, and we need more data on what they are. (Atran believes that religious violence is, at least in part, a result of group dynamics). What are the causes of good vs. bad religious actions? Clearly some religious people act morally and others immorally. Further, what makes non-religious people bad? Is there some common cause for the bad acts of religious and non-religious people? And Atran and others brought out a separate and very important point which is that clearly not all religious beliefs are amenable to rational de-conversion. Atran asked, “How do you rationally change an irrational world?” All of these are worthy points, and should have been taken by HD in the spirit they were intended: as ways to expand and deepen their program. But instead, HD rejected such points as religious apologetics, which clearly they are not. Harris in particular fell into this trap, and his repeated, intemperate, and even offensive reactions to pointed questions for further evidence for his views reflected poorly on him. While Dawkins had a more sophisticated approach than Harris, he did not take up the mantle of holding back his colleague. And that reflected poorly on him as well, I am afraid.
(7) There was heated rhetoric and egotism on both sides of this debate. Atran came across in one outburst as every bit the equal of Dawkins and Harris on that regard, basically claiming that nobody in the room but he was qualified to even approach the questions of the conference, since only he had the relevant data.
(8 ) There were caricatures of opponents’ positions on both sides of this debate. As I’ve said before, HD caricatured opponents as religious apologists. Konner caricatured HD’s position as one of banning religion entirely, or of forcing parents to raise children atheistically. Atran and Woodward made other similar caricatures, which HD largely caught and responded to.
(9) In Konner and Woodward’s interaction with Harris, it came out that Harris should have been calling for an end to “dogma” rather than religious faith, in that there are atheist dogmas as well, like certain 20th c. totalitarian political views. This is a good point, one that Harris conceded, and that deserves some deep and extended thought. Is it perhaps that the problem is not religion at all, but dogma? What is dogma? How is it fostered? Etc.
(10) It was universally held in the conference that religion plays certain crucially beneficial psychological and social roles, e.g., providing the support of a group of ready friends, ritual celebrations, etc. (Loyal Rue called this “personal wholeness and social cohesion”). To what extent are the same ends achievable from within a responsibly scientific context? Carolyn Porco suggested enlightenment-inspired celebrations like a holiday called “Day of Great Awakening” where we celebrate knowledge of the universe. Should we aim for such ends, or grander ones? How would we achieve them without fostering dogmatic, doctrinal or totalitarian views? These were not dealt with much in the conference, although Rue did a small sketch of a program.
(11) Although the moderator, Roger Bingham, did an excellent job keeping the conference moving along smoothly, I did sometimes get the feeling he was aiming more for heat than light. One might fault him for calling quite so often on HD for their responses, although that could perhaps be justified by the fact that HD were invoked more than others. However, I was really hoping that Bingham would catch onto the fact that HD were really not so far distant from the views of certain of their detractors, and with a judicially aimed question he could have perhaps bridged their differences. For example, he could have said something like: “While you HD appear to see religion as, let us say, 95% bad, and you (Atran, Konner, Woodward, etc.) see religion as, perhaps, 60% bad, let us focus on the mutually agreed upon bad parts and try to figure out how we ought to approach those.” Instead he made no attempt to find common ground, which is a shame.
(12) Neil Tyson once again showed why people refer to him as “Minister Tyson”, with his soaring and very Saganian approach to science as an essentially spiritual enterprise. It is always a pleasure to listen to him speak. It is worth listening to the two clips linked to above. We are lucky to have him in NYC.
(13) Stuart Hameroff’s work with Roger Penrose on ‘quantum consciousness’ was basically laughed off the stage. Apparently it is bad physics (Laurence Krauss basically called it garbage, and Templeton award winner Paul Davies disavowed it in his talk) as well as bad neuroscience. (One neuroscience grad student pointed out that the same sorts of phenomena are elicited by quinine as Hameroff believes happen when we lose consciousness ... yet quinine clearly is not an anesthetic).
(14) There were a few genuine religious apologists on the speaker’s rostrum, most pointedly Charles Harper from the Templeton Foundation (who gave a very self-serving picture of the Foundation’s aims) and Joan Roughgarden. One has to give Roughgarden a measure of praise for showing up and sticking to her guns, although her fixation with the issue of non-religious morality struck me as odd, given the clear fact that we have an over two hundred year history of non-religous morality in the english philosophical tradition, and going back to Aristotle and Plato, one that stretches back millennia. It seems a simple thing to say this but for some odd reason nobody did.